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The brave new whirl of education


Stuart Middleton

22 March 2010

Our current education sectors no longer make sense! There are too many, their reasons for existing no longer make sense and the relationships between them are remarkable for their lack of connection rather than coherence. Worse, they have resulted in disengagement and failure for those who struggle and unnecessary delayed progress for those who succeed.

The growth of the structure of our education system is largely the story of accidental growth and arbitrary decisions. As I said a couple of weeks ago, it is time for us to step back and look at the structure of our system. The bedding in of the sectors as we know them – Early Childhood, Primary, Secondary and Tertiary reflects the development of education in communities such as ours rather than a planned structure based on the needs of people or perhaps even on the needs of those communities.

For instance, in the late 17th century entrance to universities, including Harvard, was based on the possession of requisite knowledge (and often cash!) rather than on specific age or completion of a specified number of years of schooling. Indeed the universities would often compete for the best students with the secondary or post-primary school which then existed. Secondary education was pretty well non-existent outside the grammar schools and academies that prepared some students for university.

We launched our commitment to universal education sector by sector. First, universal primary education was the goal. That this became the goal as recently as the late 19th century shows us how quickly this has all happened. By the 1920s – 1930s a couple of years of post-primary school were available to those who had gained proficiency in Standard 6. Up until the late 1970s, only about 12.5% of any third form intake stayed at secondary school for five years.

Then in the 1980s the ripping out from the education system of opportunities for early school leavers saw that percentage increase to 65% where it has stayed ever since. The reasons for this were as much outside the education system as within it. The governments of the day destroyed the apprenticeship scheme in their determination to get out of the economy, night classes became recreational rather than vocational and technical, polytechnics took training into the daylight producing a damaging clash with daytime employment, technology changed the face of occupations such as office work, the entry level to some occupations (such as teaching, nursing, business etc) was ramped up for little apparent reason. Low-skilled or unskilled employment was both taken out of the options by changes in manufacturing and suchlike and by becoming something that was below our aspirations. The value of being in work had become replaced by the value of what job you had.

By the end of the 1980s, one hundred years after we started our quest towards universal education we had instead produced universal compulsory primary and secondary education and the phenomenon of disengagement. We still struggle with universal Early Childhood Education despite the soft OECD targets.

Then universal tertiary education became the goal and here we are now with students all over the place literally.

We now have four major education sectors which are apparently so different that they are pursued on different sites, by different groups of people who are required to have different qualifications, prepared for their work in different ways, belong to different professional bodies, represented by different unions and have little to do with each other. Meanwhile it is the young students and their parents who are left to struggle with this unnecessary complexity.

It is time for this to change!

First, reduce the number of education sectors to two. Secondly, be serious about the professionalisation of the education industry.

The Sectors

I propose that New Zealand education be divided in two sectors – The School Sector and the Post-School. And here are some possible details:

The School Sector would cover what is now called Early Childhood Education, Primary School, Intermediate School and Secondary School up to the end of Year 10. This sector would be totally integrated, operate to one integrated curriculum and to clear milestone standards starting at Year K2 and finishing at Year 10. (The year numbering system could be K2,K1, Y1,Y2……..Y9,Y10 and encompasses Age 3 to Age 14/15). Use would be made of existing school premises but clearly this approach could see integration of what are currently separate schools and could lead to new governance arrangements over local areas.

I imagine that there could be an organisational split between “junior school” and “senior school”

The Post-School Sector would include everything that currently follows Year 10. Many students, perhaps a majority of students could well be in a “High School” that offers Year 11-13 programmes for students proceeding down academic pathways to university / polytechnic degree programmes.

Others could be in the polytechnic sector getting on with a technical / vocational qualification. Specialist “High Schools” might emerge that cater for sporting excellence or for music and artistic excellence. PTEs would be active in offering pathways towards a range of options and in tightly specialist areas. There might even be a space for the development of a New Zealand version of the US community college.

 Students would have to remain in the School / Post-School sector until age 19 or until they were qualified and in permanent employment.

This proposal would greatly simplify attempts to provide more meaningful and effective pathways for students in the current senior secondary school and would simplify the policy development and implementation required to meet the flexibility required these days. Above all, with its critical switch from the school sector into the post-school sector would be at a point in young peoples development where they could be captured for a future with purpose rather than the inevitable disengagement that awaits them currently.

Professionalisation of the Education Industry

Hand in hand with this new approach would be the professionalisation of the education Industry. There are two main thrusts here – integrating all parts into single entities and passing much more control over to the profession.

So, one professional organisation that has control over entry into the profession, standards of conduct and codes of ethics matched by one industrial organisation that would represent all the different part of the sector. The profession would also have additional markers such as an Education Commission (in the style of the Law Commission) to provide advice to the government.

Now there are a lot of ideas to be teased out here. But let’s start the discussion. How long might such a comprehensive change take? Ten years perhaps. Never if we don’t start.

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